Thursday, January 7, 2010

Shattered memories of happier days

My youngest daughter who lives in the United States called last week. She is taking a PAL flight for Manila today, and she gave me a list of food favorites, in fact wanted a huge breakfast the day she arrives. Together with sun-dried tapa, daing na biya and longanisa (three kinds --- Lukban, Alaminos and Vigan), she asked if I could prepare her favourite relish for fried foods, which is chopped native tomatoes and manggang piko, laced with a little salt.

So off I went yesterday to Quinta Market in Quiapo, the old reliable place where my suki always has manggang piko this time of the year. You see, only piko and pajo are good enough to eat when they are green. Kalabaw mangoes are without equal when ripe, but are extremely sour when green. Many consumers these days wouldn’t know the difference between kalabaw and piko, only hinog at hilaw.

It’s been some time since I personally visited what used to be Echague, slowly decayed since they renamed it Carlos Palanca Sr., after the Chinese entrepreneur who made a fortune selling Ginebra San Miguel. Since most of the kids left for the US of A, infrequent have been my visits to wet markets. My old reliable because conveniently located, and with ample parking, is Cartimar in nearby Pasay. But sometimes manggang piko is not available in Cartimar, from the single vendor who gets her supply from a viajera in Laguna. But in Echague, fronting old and decrepit Quinta Market, there always is that single tindera who sells piko, ust as one has to go to San Andres or pricey Rockwell for manggang pajo.

I parked in front of the row of houseware stores where most every restaurant and hotel buys most of their glassware and kitchen equipment. Just a few steps beyond was Quinta Market and Villalobos which leads directly to the Shrine of the Nazarene, now filled with street vendors selling all kinds of vegetables in small portions. Palanca narrows down to a single lane in front of Quinta, as half the street has given way to all kinds of fish and bagoong vendors. Getting back to the car after buying my treasured manggang piko, I passed by the ham store. Not that I haven’t tired of Christmas ham, but I had to buy hocks and bone to flavour the broth for fabada which we always cook in large batches. We divide a cauldron of fabada into single portions, ladle these into microwavable containers, and keep in the freezer for whenever someone in the house feels the urge for a steaming bowl of Asturias’ stew of beans, pork and chorizos de bilbao.

I proceeded northward towards Ayala Bridge after brief market interlude, and instantly felt like Macaulay’s traveller from New Zealand, “exploring the spectral ruins of Manila in the course of his post-atomic war peregrinations’ as the great Claro Mayo Recto once wrote about, warning about getting ourselves involved in the quarrels of the mighty. For in what was once a vibrant commercial street in the days of my youth, all that one could see were hollowed out decrepit buildings. Better-looking were the go-downs of Kowloon in the 60’s, before these were transformed into neon-lit shopping mecca. After passing the bridge where fetid estero emptied its slime into the Pasig River, what was once glorious Echague has become no man’s land. The once proud La Tondena façade had become a testament to long gone glory. Fronting it now were rows of abandoned accesorias where once business bustled. Even the sidewalk vendors feared to tread what had become deserted strip.

I recalled that when I was a boy in short pants, we would go to Echague for a treat of banana split in the cool of Magnolia’s soda fountain, right after a shopping spree at what used to be Manila’s store for the mostest, similar to what Rustan’s today is --- Aguinaldo’s. When I was four or five, we would motor from San Pablo in Laguna to Manila, take a lunch of “comida China” at an Escolta or Sta. Cruz panciteria, then proceed to Echague where my lola would buy “aguinaldos” at the huge warehouse-type building in front of an expensive furniture maker’s atelier, and later walk a few steps for the ice cream treat at Magnolia’s. This was an annual hegira for me. Sometimes my lola would go visit her lawyer in his Escolta office, and then give me a treat at Botica Boie’s soda fountain, where huge sundaes and parfaits were once upon a happy time now mere memories.

Echague, already re-named Palanca, should one day be re-named Calzada de Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. It after all leads to Malacanang Palace in what was once Calle Aviles, now Jose P. Laurel after the wartime president. It also mirrors the decay of the country, from what was once a proud Asian nation during the time of her father Diosdado, into the most corrupt nation in this part of the globe. The row of decay that leads to the people’s palace is vivid symbol of the death of our institutions and the decay of both social mores and political ethos, so very reminiscent of the decade when Dona Gloria held sway with power so abused and morals so debased.

After that short stretch of no-man’s land where happy memories paled before harsh reality, one turns into Ayala Bridge. And then the motorist gets overwhelmed by a cornucopia of lampposts and plastic-encased lamps, all presumably imported from the land of cheapo’s, what used to be derided by Filipinos as “communist” China, now the global economy’s grandest emporium, where signature labels are mass-produced for the “exclusive” salons of Europe, and faked for the “hwa-na” 168 and SM.

I recall one night last year when I passed the same arches, and got my senses enveloped in a maze of multi-coloured streaks of green and was that violet, mish-mashed with UFO-inspired orange contraptions of undisguised kitsch every few meters, making a once-historic bridge look like a cheap copy of Hongkong Disneyland. Don’t take my word for it. Try passing by Manila’s historic bridges --- Jones and MacArthur, Quezon and Ayala, even Nagtahan, and Roxas Boulevard as well, Quirino Avenue in Paco and Pandacan, and weep at the phantasmagoria of Yiwu and Shenzhen illuminati, in all its tacky tastelessness.

Sometimes one wonders if Dona Gloria, she with the high-class gustatory cravings a la Le Cirque, has ever bothered to call up Manila’s hizzoner to inquire about that queer mix of street lighting that has peppered the once proud and beautiful City of Man. Oh well…she probably would use her pork as congresswoman to do the same for Guagaua and Lubao, and metequ!... Betis and Sta. Rita of the hundred iglesias y capillas.

One likewise wonders what the average man feels about all the decay encased in selectively-laced bright lights. Or have we as a people lost both pride of place and sense of history?

Sadly, one concludes --- matagal na. What a city. What a country.

Have a nice week-end!

“Her” man

The last reputable surveys done after the filing of certificates of candidacy show three presidential candidates at the top: Noynoy Aquino in the mid to high forties, Manny Villar and Erap Estrada in a virtual tie at 20 or 19 percentage points. And Gilbert Teodoro, the man anointed by the once humongous Partido Lakas-Kampi founded by Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, incumbent and long-staying president of the benighted republic, at low single-digit numbers. The rest are also-rans, at 1 percentage point or even lower.

Why the regime’s anointed is languishing at bottom lows, despite the vaunted party machinery, the well-placed ads projecting competence and intelligence (“galing at talino”), and despite inarguably better speaking and debating skills than the competition, is attributable to the public belief that he is “Gloria’s man”, the chosen “one”, the person she deems most fit to succeed and most acceptable to her. Unfortunately for him, the person who chose him above all else happens to be most distrusted by the population. That distrust for his patroness drags Gibo down, never mind his personal qualities. It carries over to his persona, reinforced in no small measure by his having expressed not only the usual paeans of gratitude, but a public admiration for her “ many achievements”, something clearly the people do not share. To do a volte face at this time will no longer be credible. Gilbert Teodoro’s chances are thus virtually nil. Even Ronaldo Puno’s vaunted skills cannot resurrect flagging hopes. Nor Virgilio Garcillano’s magic make the trick. Perhaps if Norberto Gonzales succeeds in discombobulating everything and upsetting the applecart of elections… perhaps, but that’s a big IF, and assuming the guy and his patroness can pull it through, will the people ever be so supine as to take such adventurism lying down?

It does not help Teodoro one whit that his patroness has filed her certificate of candidacy for the second congressional district of Pampanga. The undisguised attempt to pull strings even beyond her wished-for political demise, ruling beyond the grave as it were, makes Teodoro look all the more the puppet that he is unfairly made to be. Yesterday, the papers carried Speaker Prospero Nograles’ inclusion of the call for a constitutional convention, as if to further stress the GMA plan so obvious. But because Gibo’s presidential ambition is singularly anchored on the support of her party and its minions across the archipelago, he cannot publicly balk. In fact, he is on record as supporting a change in the Constitution. While amending the fundamental law is right, espousing it at the moment when people so clearly distrust the sincerity of the incumbent is off-key. Gilbert cannot even publicly state that if elected president, he will wield his influence to ensure that GMA does not become his Speaker of the House. So, whether for better, or predictably for worse, Gloria’s distrust rating will be albatross around Gilbert’s neck. His goose is cooked, never mind how often Prospero Pichay or Mitos Magsaysay whistle in the dark.

Which brings me to this story: A few days before Manny Pacquiao knocked down Ricky Hatton in early May, the spouses Cynthia and Manuel Villar flew to Spain. Likewise, Gloria flew to Egypt and Syria for official visits. Why she had to go to these North African countries the public was never clear at, but in any case, they took it as just one of her usual flights of fancy. The Villars were waiting in Spain for cues from a well-placed Gloria crony, who was supposed to arrange a rendezvous with her in some warm Mediterranean coast.

Fortunately, this writer found out about the Villar travel plans. And so, just as Dona Gloria landed in Egypt, the cat was out of the bag. Expectedly, Malacanang made denials. Senadora Jamby Madrigal got into the act, and denounced Villar for desperately seeking La Gloria’s support in his attempt to derail the Senate ethics probe. This after all, was Villar’s immediate problem. The attempted rendezvous panned out.

But then, and here our travel facts jibe with the veracity of highly reliable sources, a top-level meeting was supposed to have yet pushed through here in the country. And GMA, wanting for a strong contender her PaLaKa simply could not pull off from its hat, warmed up to the idea of Villar as her “secret” candidate. Classified as opposition, though not an “obstructionist” nor a GMA basher as the rest of the presidential pack, Villar qualified as an acceptable alternative bet. Moreover, he was already ahead of her vice-president, Noli de Castro in the May surveys. Better yet, he had wherewithal to the max, the result of “smart” transactions capped by an even “smarter” IPO of his real estate empire the year before. Noli she had to spend for, while with Manny, she gets a free ride.

The result of the “transaction” as my source confided, is that GMA would endorse a “weak” but credible enough candidate, and not “encourage” Noli to run for president, a prospect that the not-so-ambitious vice-president was not inordinately “lusting” for. And on his part, Villar would keep dangling a “repeat vice-president” string, loaded with generous freebies, to his bosom friend Noli, a “red herring” of an offer. If GMA would have a weak official candidate, Manny with his huge war chest would prevail in the 2010 derby, the ideal surrogate. Neat.

After all, Lacson had withdrawn; Escudero had no money and would have to rely on Danding and Ramon Ang’s promises; Mar Roxas and Loren Legarda were languishing in single-digit survey static; and Erap would be disqualified. And true enough, when the SWS polled in mid-June 2009, it was a statistical tie among Villar, Chiz and Erap, with Noli behind, Loren and Mar even more so. Teodoro had launched his clumsy disaster preparedness infomercial a month before, its debut timed with Hatton’s early knock-out from the Pacman’s fists, and while everybody shook his head at his “late” entry and doubted his chances, most agreed he had intellectual credentials, credibility as candidate but not enough to win. Gravitas, but not votes.

And then the Lord writ His providence with sad tidings. On August 1, Corazon Aquino died after a long bout with cancer, and the political stage shook underneath. Forty days later, a game changer came in with Noynoy on the presidential trail. All previous assumptions changed, including the fortunes of Gloria’s pre-arranged surrogate. Likely unstoppable winner became a distant second, despite tons and tons of creative advertising and a bevy of turncoats. From September till December of the year past, Noynoy kept his commanding lead. Escudero withdrew, Erap persists, but Gibo continues to languish in the political netherworld.

And that is where the woman of the decade finds immediate political dilemma at this point in time. Her anointed has not risen, and her alternate, though far from victory, presents the single most “possible” threat to the front-runner she could not accept because he is the least likely to “transact”.

If creative advertising and a well-run because well-funded campaign pulls Villar up in the next three months, and a demolition job somehow pushes down Noynoy’s lead considerably (or so the evil are planning), then it’s game for Manny and goodbye for Gibo. Garci and the “operators” should be able to do the trick, with Smartmatic laying the predicate.

But would Manny the new president be faithful to his “no me impune” assurances? Why not?

They would need each other most after a certifiably controversial “election”. She with her residual powers as “commander-in-chief” between May 10 and June 30 just might be able to quell the tumult of the rabble. That’s why Del Bangit and the Class of ’78 are in the “proper” places. And he would at least be able to recover his billions, while stopping prosecution for “smart” deals made as congressman, Speaker, senator and Senate President, charges with enough documentary evidence to prosecute, but parried successfully by “smart” propaganda so far. Never mind if he has to deal with “her” congressmen with her, (misma!) as Speaker. If he is off to wobbly start, he would not get his bearings composed, and she, as “Speaker” and alternate “power center”, just might be able to pull off her parliamentary dreams of becoming the prime minister.

There you are --- “her” real man for the May elections. God save this country.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Man and woman of the decade

The last ten years have been most traumatic for democracy which was re-established with the ascent of Corazon Aquino to the presidency in 1986. The decade began with the usurpation of political power in the throes of what has been labelled as Edsa Dos, when a legitimately elected and duly constituted president was thrown out of the seat of power without benefit of the formal processes of a concluded impeachment trial. The beneficiary of that illegitimate effort was, and still is --- Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. She is the woman of this decade.

And then again, in 2004, democracy was to be tested in its fundamental institution --- the freedom of popular choice that is measured by elections. The election of the woman of the decade was largely put under question. Ironically, that question was momentarily put to rest by the “loser” in said elections, FPJ, who quietly went through the motions of a formal election protest. Observers at the time wondered what could have happened had the “losing” FPJ decided to call on his supporters to march into the streets, or onto the Malacanang they felt was stolen from the people. As fate would have it, a heartbroken FPJ died some six months later, and the grieving widow, Jesusa Sonora Poe, could have used sad occasion to retrieve Malacanang for the people. She did not. It was to her mind, for the people and not for her family alone to reclaim their democratic right.

Confirmation of dastardly electoral deeds came when in the middle of 2005, the tapes of Garci conversing with several, but most importantly, his principal, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (misma!), came to fore. All hell could have broken loose, as democracy foundered on the shoals of discovered cheating and incessant lying.

The man who engineered the cheating, Virgilio Garcillano, commissioner of the Commission on Elections and principal operator of electoral chicanery, was conspiratorially spirited out of the country during those critical times, to surface only when incipient congressional effort to impeach was successfully quelled by the abuse of presidential power and the dispensation of privilege. No man has symbolized the destruction of the electoral institution of free choice more than Virgilio Garcillano and her “Hello Garci”. To this day, election as the most fundamental of democracy’s institutions have yet to recover credibility or trust, thanks to the man of the decade --- Virgilio Garcillano.

Yes --- Garcillano as Man and Gloria as Woman of the Decade. Both personify in the most certain of terms the destruction of the institutions of our fragile democracy.

Runner-up to Garcillano is the woman’s esposo (mismo!), Jose Miguel Arroyo y Tuason. Where Gloria and Garci have epitomized cheating and lying, the perception that Mike Arroyo is behind most of the stealing that has hounded his wife’s leadership persists to this day. Rightly or wrongly, the popular belief that Mike is behind the major corruption practices in Customs, in multi-billion road projects, in scandalous deal after anomalous deed in government, such as the stinking ZTE-NBN fiasco, has persisted to this day. Were it not for my own assessment that Garci and Gloria’s stealing of popular choice and debauchery of our electoral institution is paramount in its scope of evil compared to corruption most gross, El Esposo Miguel would be our choice as Man of the Decade. And how appropriate it should be that this horrible decade should have husband and wife as it’s Man and Woman.

But then again, only a cretin would hold that Mike’s deeds are without knowledge or consent of the woman. She after all, holds the power of appointment, not he. Even if we were to assume that his influence over such sordid appointments as Joc-Joc and ilk stopped after they were given their working papers, the fact is that she abetted their continued stay in power even after stink had been uncovered. And the normal wheels of justice were stopped or re-directed to allow them to stay or cover their tracks, with the woman of the decade abetting the same.

Thus the woman and the man are one and the same --- partners in crime. The sins of the man are subsumed within the power of the woman. And Garci, because he has come to personify the debasement of our electoral institution, is appropriately the Man of the Decade.

Together Gloria and Garci personify corruption at its worst. It’s not just the abuse of power and the plunder of public resources. It is about the destruction of moral values. It’s about the destruction of our institutions. Rightly and indeed, the worsening of the people’s poverty is attributable to the denial of those basic services that ought to have uplifted them from the quagmire, instead denied by the pervasive corruption of Gloria’s regime.

Marcos and Imelda did it by closing down democracy itself. Gloria and Garci did it by subverting democracy. Theirs has been the more creative, the more subtle way to pursue ignoble ends.

Now the whole country looks forward to an electoral exercise five months and five days away as deliverance from the deadly duo. And key to this deliverance is an electoral exercise fraught with the uncertainty of automation both questionable and untested, and players who hardly excite with the message of genuine change. Still and all, superimposed upon these uncertainties is the spectre of the woman of the decade unfurling some tricks up her sleeve, not the least of which is naked military take-over, a la Marcos.

Why, even her grand-daughter, El Hijo Mikey’s own, could not help but express her Christmas wish aloud --- that Lola will remain president forever! Drummed incessantly into her ears by dinner talk? Truly, the desire for perpetual power must be genetic.

We are thus off to 2010 hobbled by fear and anxiety. While elections seem to purvey hope, the same hope founders on doubt and uncertainty. And the aces are yet held by the woman of this horrible decade. Woe unto us.

Optimism reared its presence, albeit ironically, when democracy’s popular icon, Cory Aquino, died last August 1, 2009. With the outpouring of grief came the luminescence of hope, in that Gloria’s days are surely at an end, and attempts to thwart our 2010 hopes shall be met by active public resistance. Would that these shall come to pass.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

People politics

The surprise decision of Chiz Escudero to resign from the NPC was finalized in his mind and in his heart only on Tuesday morning, the day before he was expected to rally the troops at the Bahay ng Alumni of the University of the Philippines. A simple but emotionally rousing event had been planned to begin at 5:30 on Wednesday afternoon. After a quick lunch at his informal campaign headquarters, the cozy Taste of L.A. along Alejandro Roces St., conveniently two hundred meters away from his small townhouse unit in New Manila, the decision to resign was firmed up with heavy heart.

There was absolutely no rancour in his heart towards anyone in the party hierarchy. But clear positions and personal principles could not be viewed sceptically by the public because of present company. Present company are old and genuine friends --- conscientious legislators with their constituents’ interest principal to them, with a loyal voter following brought about by years of good service. But in the larger view of the national interest at a time when public despair and despondency threaten to break the polity up, new solutions and fresh ideas, this amorphously defined cry for “Pagbabago” (Change), needed positing. And solutions offered had to go beyond motherhood statements, but specific stand on various policy issues.

For “change” to be genuine and meaningful, the tired old buzzwords and catch phrases ring empty. And for several months, Escudero had been debating these policy issues with friends and confidantes, former classmates and fraternity brothers, new-found friends among “low-involvement” young businessmen and sectoral leaders. A new kind of change was slowly defined.. Bagong Pagbabago.

He reviewed the sad and always compromised history of the nation since the birth of the First Republic. He was after all, a martial law “baby”, born on October 10, 1969, yet unable to understand what authoritarianism was all about, except that there was “peace” in the street where he grew up in Quezon City. It was his maternal lolo’s house, a compound shared by his teacher mom and his teacher dad with the entire kin. His “tatay”, Salvador, could not afford a house and lot of their own, even if he had become the youngest dean of the University of the Philippines. Ferdinand Marcos saw promise in the abilities of his tatay, who was a doctor of veterinary medicine, and tapped Salvador, better known as “Sonny” into government service. When the legendary agriculture minister Bong Tanco died, Marcos appointed Sonny as replacement, in the late days of authoritarianism. Chiz was a gangly young boy at the time. He once asked his father why, unlike kids of officials of lesser rank, he had to make do with low allowances and could not even be gifted with a Game and Watch plaything. His father merely smiled and played with the young man’s softly curled hair. Department of Agriculture old-timers have very high regard for Sonny, who was returned to their helm by President Fidel V. Ramos. FSGO’s venerable, Ting Paterno, a man I admire most, once affirmed to me Sonny Escudero’s integrity as a fellow cabinet member under Marcos.

The young Escudero saw how “people power” so soon after its proud birth, was compromised in the shoals of the return of traditional politics. And how, in the praxis of multi-party politics, the party as an institution became little more than temporary alliances for political convenience. So when he entered politics as a young congressman for the first district of Sorsogon, he joined the Nationalist People’s Coalition, which, despite having lost the presidential plum in 1992, remained fairly intact and cohesive, bound by personal friendship with its founder, Ambassador Danding Cojuangco. Undoubtedly traditional, like most every other political party, national, local or regional, young Escudero became part of the traditional panoply of our politics.

But the test of his convictions occurred when Gloria Macapagal Arroyo came to power in the heels of the touted second “people power”. He was with Erap until the end, and thus became an oppositionist as he began his second term. He even became the spokesman of FPJ in 2004 against incumbent GMA, who some of his own party-mates supported, (I was the spokesman of “maverick” Ping Lacson, and up to now, Chiz and I rib each other about our contrary “performances” in several debates then). This feat he did even as he stood for his final re-election as congressman, and won. It was in that last term where his political star shone. Elected minority floor leader of a much-decimated opposition (his own party, NPC, chose to align in coalition with GMA), he led that small but vociferous pack of two dozen in filing impeachment cases against the “elected” president in the wake of the Hello Garci revelations. Many conscienticized congressmen from the majority crossed party lines to join a failed but valiant political adventure. They lost to the money and wiles of Dona Gloria, but Escudero and company won the hearts of the people. Thus, when he ended his term in 2007, and ran for the Senate on sparse resources, a grateful nation gave him 18 million votes, and placed him second among twelve. He has distinguished himself in the Senate, where his searing questions in committee deliberations earned for him the respect of older peers.

Young Escudero studies assiduously, and has a keen analytical mind. In the few months that I have come to know him closer, I discovered that he also has a photographic memory. That explains what I used to think was nothing else but articulate abilities, which my friend Conrad de Qurios once dismissed as “glibness”. Chiz has this uncanny ability, so rare these days, to virtually memorize what he himself pounded on his Mac. When time to speak came, the words just flowed seamlessly. Amazing. (That was my fear when I was accepted into the Ateneo College of Law. Mahina ako sa memorizing. So while waiting for the first semester at law school to start, and I received a job offer from a multinational, the salary of which was three times higher than my classmates in undergrad got, I chucked off law school, to my eternal regret.)

Through the many days and nights that Escudero discussed his thoughts with me and others, he had a consistent plaint, expressed mostly in Tagalog even if his proficiency in English was beyond reproach. Twice we had “people power”, but power never really went to the people. The poor are as wretchedly despondent as ever, and political power has only served the economic interests of the few. As it was in Marcos, so it was with Cory and beyond. And as degenerately worst in Gloria’s reign. He has fashioned in his mind, after several meetings with experts in various academic disciplines, or read their published and unpublished work, what we call a new kind of change. Bagong Pagbabago --- not the usual motherhood statements, but specific solutions that could serve as the lynchpin of a vision that would make the common man, middle-class or poor, realize that he matters in the scheme of things.

People power never brought power to the people. It was exploited by the powerful and wealthy few to bring them more power and more wealth. For the people to feel that to them belongs the power in a sovereign and democratic nation, then what must be practiced is “people politics”, in present practice nothing else but power politics in the guise of party politics.

Escudero’s message would not resonate with the people if his politics reeked of “old and inherited” wealth, though not his own, and certainly not of “new wealth” with questionable origins, as in the case of a man born poor but ascended the economic ladder quickly through wheeling and dealing.

Hindi pwedeng Lumang Pulitika. Lalong hindi pwedeng Nagpayaman sa Pulitika.

The idealism remains intact. The vision is clear. The intent to serve in higher capacity remains.

Cynics scoff in scorn, in a political environment where “practical” (read that as traditional) politics is the rule. Quixotic, many dismiss.

But in a time of continuing blight, with 65% of the population young but helpless, young but hopeless, reaching for one’s North Star must be done without mental reservation or emotional qualm.

I have chosen to accompany young Chiz Escudero in his political odyssey.

And so this is my last article until after the tenth of May, 2010. I had hoped to invite the publisher, boss Jake, and the editors, boss Pocholo and Manong Joy among others in Malaya, to lunch or dinner to explain why I must take a leave of absence from column-writing, but the whirl of events that led to young Escudero’s decision prevented an earlier person-to-person farewell.

I thank Malaya and Abante, and all the staff, particularly Che who reminded me of my deadlines patiently, for the privilege of writing these past five years and five months.

* * *

P.S. When young Chiz informed his ninang, Mrs. Jesusa Sonora Poe, Susan Roces to every Filipino, that he would begin his political odyssey on October 28, she asked --- “Why the date?”

Chiz replied: “Wala lang po. Nagkataon lang dahil na-postpone na nga”.

And Mrs. Poe smilingly said, “That is the Feast of St. Jude, the patron saint of the impossible”.

Chiz laughed upon the realization of the religious significance of the date. Incidentally, St. Jude is located right beside Malacanang. Serendipity.

How do you read Chiz?

Yesterday morning, young senator Francis Joseph “Chiz” Escudero faced the media in a press conference to declare an overdose of political news. It was not so intended.

Early this year, he had told media that he would declare his political plans only after he reached the ripe young age of forty. That is the constitutional age requirement. Tying oneself to a definitive timeline was both good and bad tactic. Good because it keeps everyone guessing, while you inch into the public consciousness without being necessarily a threat to the earlier declared or earlier-perceived “presidentiables”. Bad because having made a definitive timeline, he was boxed into it, even when the fast-paced developments in the political scene after the death of Cory Aquino demanded quick answers and quick reactions.

Of course Tita Cory’s death and the “halo” it placed on her son Noynoy’s head were quite unpredictable. Mar’s acceptance of the reality that he was not so fated to become the country’s 15th president, followed nine days later by Noynoy’s desire to be “it”, was a game changer.

The “movie” in Chiz’ mind was to have begun with a declaration of his intent on October 12, the Monday following his 40th birthday which was October 10. But on September 26, Ondoy inundated the metropolis, laying to waste so much property and taking so many lives. Still dazed at so much destruction, Pepeng tarried in the north and brought so much rain that likewise flooded out many provinces, again taking lives and laying crops and livelihood destitute on October 9. It would have been grossly insensitive to declare political plans at such a time of instant grief and sorrow. Everyone took time out, and even Erap postponed the premiere night of his re-run.

The Nationalist People’s Coalition, had two “presidentiables”, Sen. Loren Legarda who had run for vice-president with the legendary FPJ in 2004. As fate and Garci would have it, they “lost”. But she made a spectacular comeback in the elections of 2007, when she topped the senatorial race. Next to her was the “enfant merveilleuse” of Philippine politics, 38-year old Chiz, who had capped nine years of being congressman of Sorsogon as captain ball of the valiant try to impeach Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in 2005.

Little by little, Chiz overtook Loren’s early lead in the surveys, which has become the barometer of national political chances. In a sense, surveys have substituted for party conventions in a polity where parties have become little more than temporary shelters or political barkadahan. Thus, as the November 30 deadline draws near, Chiz was touted as NPC’s presidential candidate, and Loren as his “vice”.

The earlier “events” chronology, we learned, was for Chiz to declare on or right after his 40th natal day, followed by Loren on her mother’s birth anniversary on October 23. Then the party would have given its official imprimatur sometime in November. Stretching the process gave the candidates more media moments, as Mar and Noynoy likewise did. But as this schedule turned awry, Loren came first with her declaration of purpose and “secondary” goal. Yesterday was Escudero’s turn to slay the suspense.

But as things would have it, there was talk that not all was well with young Chiz and the party he belonged to since 1998 when he first became congressman. Further fuelling the speculation was Loren’s rather strange statement that she was running with God-knows-who as her head. Strange because as NPC stalwart since 2007, she was supposed to run with another member of her party.

Yesterday Escudero poured it before the public when he began his declaration by saying that he had resigned from the Nationalist People’s Coalition. That statement stunned the public, for he had been with the party for a far longer time than Loren. What went wrong?

He was running as himself, not as one bound by the party’s interests. He did not want to be “chained” to party interests, and in an unusually bold statement, virtually made a declaration of independence from party politics, and embraced “people politics”. One who desires the presidency, he said, must forswear narrow party interests in favour of the larger interest of people and nation. In Pilipino, he was saying, “the people must be one’s party”.

It was a “revolt” against the political system we have become accustomed to, one where the landed elite, the billionaire class, the oligarchy always held sway. It was a polity dominated by economic interests of the few who “own” the wealth of the nation, not always to the long-lasting benefit of the many, the teeming many, who own so little.

Escudero’s introduction of himself as “Hindi ako heredero, hindi ako haciendero, at lalong hindi ako bilyonaryo” was an indictment not so much a description of his competition, but more --- of the system. Saying that he, a product of the public school system, son of teachers, whose veterinarian father made good likewise in government and politics but has kept his integrity intact, a lawyer who once taught in his alma mater, the University of the Philippines, and has since become a well-known congressman and senator, was just an “ordinary” guy, without the cachet of “pedigree”. And so he is asking the people if the system would allow those born with neither pedigree nor wealth, legal or illegal, to get a chance at becoming its president.

There was a time, before and after the war, when such was possible. Quezon was a famulo (working student) at Letran; Quirino was a jail warden’s son who was deprived of material wealth until he married a rich Chinese mestiza. Garcia of Bohol was only a teacher’s son. Diosdado Macapagal was the son of landless tenants. The system then, despite and probably because of strong party institutions, allowed the poor, the ordinary but deserving, to be offered to the sovereign people for the highest post in the land. Now, with the party system decrepit, and presidential campaigns costing billions, with the enormously wealthy controlling the economy and the polity as well, young Chiz threw back the question to the people --- Is people politics possible? Has it’s time come?

* * *

As I am assuming an active role in the forthcoming political campaign, I have to take a leave from column-writing, so that personal and professional bias does not colour my writing. Tomorrow’s column shall be my last until after the elections of 2010.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Low involvement

Despite the screaming headlines about the politics of 2010, the average Filipino voter has very “low involvement” in the matter of choosing who should lead the nation after years and years of the disaster named Gloria.

ABS-CBN can tout “Ako ang Simula” and drum up voter interest in the all-important task of choosing who shall steer the affairs of state come noon of June 30, 2010, but even the new voter registration has turned up abysmally low numbers, thanks in part to the long lines that plague Comelec registration centers. Most of those lining up are the poor, principally because their barangay chairmen have been instructed by the local mayoralty aspirant to ensure his would-be followers register and vote. Otherwise, there is little “kusang-loob”.

Why is this? Why do voters prefer tele-novela as escapist prescription to the seminal pains of survival in the benighted land, instead of listening to the promise of deliverance mouthed, some convincingly, many unconvincingly, by the candidates for president in occasional talk-shows? The answer of course is partly because ANC is cable and does not come free, unlike the tele-novelas of GMA and ABS, paid for the masa by numerous advertisements, some of them even political ads, while cable ANC is mostly English, not quite the language the masa understand. Those of us who read the papers, watch the news on TV and listen to commentators on radio are an insignificant minority of less than 10%.of the voting population. The rest do not care. In the words of a respected market research specialist, they have “low involvement”.

So does Erap still excite? Look at the numbers in the surveys. Those are likely to be the “loyal” core who at one time or another received a dole-out; Erap’s legendary munificence must have saved them from hunger for a day or two. They “feel” for him; they cried when he was sent to jail; and those among them who walked from their urban warrens, or were bussed from Navotas or Malabon got another free serving of adobo or whatever else when they trooped to his “convention” last week at Plaza Moriones. And if the Comelec first, and the Supreme Court next, declares an Erap re-run legally impermissible, will they march to the streets and encamp till kingdom come until their idol’s “rights” are recognized? Hardly, except for a few hundreds, maybe a thousand or so, of the organized “masa”. The rest, the un-organized, will need to knock in every office for a job, or with their rickety kariton’s, scavenge for what little they could sell, provenance for the night’s meal. Erap will need to pay for the rent-a-crowd, not because their loyalty is for sale, but simply because each day is always a meal away. That is why they bring their children in rallies. Maski na paano, makakain din. And the rent-a-crowd brokers charge Erap and whoever else needs a crowd, even for the “retazos”, and profit from the same, short-changing the “masa”, while over-charging Erap, who loves being fooled.

Am I being too cynical? Look at the numbers. They tell a story beyond what television touts as “involvement”.

So why does Tita Cory’s son get high numbers? Low involvement likewise. People don’t see the relevance of whoever leads to change in their existence. It will always be isang kahig, isang tuka. So their low involvement gets mesmerized by today’s fad --- yellow as color, Cory as symbol (of what, they really do not quite grasp), Kris as fashion, Noynoy as fad. Even Mar getting finally married to Korina today will excite, for a few days. Beyond all these, it is still the politics of the stomach, and come election day, the mayor or his rivals will take care of that, at least for a few days.

So how long will the fad last? Fad becomes fashion when nothing else subs for it, when better or more acceptable fad does not appear, and does not excite the lowly involved.

Why was Villar, until Noynoy got into the act, inching up in the numbers game? Because he had a tale to tell --- the once-poor boy who made good, and now wants to share his largesse with his origins, kuno. He has proof of this --- houses raffled at Wowowee, and pictures of abused OFW’s given free fare to return to the land of the benighted. All these are advertised on free TV, of course, and touted by “paid” media, Nobody scratches beneath the surface of propaganda, because of low involvement. Madaling manloko, dahil walang paki ang naloloko.

When it comes to issues that ought to be the determinants of choice, which matter first? High prices, joblessness, livelihood concerns. Everybody and his uncle shout that corruption is the cause, and the masa grasps that, but heck, from Roxas to Garcia to Macapagal, through Marcos, to Aquino and Ramos, Erap and the past nine years of Gloria, it’s been one scandal of corruption after another. So the public’s low involvement syndrome says --- pare-pareho lang ‘yan. Walang magbabago. Corruption as an issue of concern ranks only sixth or seventh in the hierarchy of people’s ken.

But our leaders are stealing us blind, and that is why government resources coming from the taxes we pay are wasted, those of us in the “high involvement” minority reason. “So, what else is new?”, the low involvement respondents say. Maski sumigaw ka ng sumigaw, corrupt din ang papalit. Kaya ang leksyon --- makibahagi ka na lang.

But we threw out leaders who were corrupt, first Marcos, then Erap, the highly involved rebut, through “people power”, they remind. So what, the lowly involved retort --- luminis ba? Hindi ba nagsipagbalik lang ang corrupt, at mas matakaw pa?

The system sucks. And changing the faces will not change the system that sucks. In truth, the lowly involved have stopped hoping. Those of them whose parents scraped enough from every meal to get them through school and now count themselves lucky enough to get a contractual job, as sales clerk in some taipan’s department store, as security guard in some mestizo’s mall --- good for the next five to six months, know the hopelessness of it all. So they help themselves, scrimping and scraping off starvation wages, so that there will be enough to pay the recruiter. Any job in some far-away place is escape from the dreadfulness of near sub-human existence. And the less lucky, those whose parents were unable to send them through school, never mind if they were diploma mills, survive by being kargadores in the wet markets, or pickpockets, or scavengers. For them, even dreams are a luxury.

Is there any candidate out there who can infuse some hope?

I always exclaim, what a country! What a country, indeed.

* * *

Just as I was ending this article, a friend sent me a short message. It is a message of hope, and so I thought of sharing it with you, instead of stabbing hopelessly into the dark.

“No matter how bad yesterday was, it now belongs to the past. Don’t let it worry you or stop you from pursuing the many possibilities of today.

“For today is a gift you can unwrap and share with all.

“That is why it is called “present”. Open God’s present with a happy heart”.

Amen to that.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Choosing a “vice” for 2010

Since Cory of Tarlac partnered with Doy of Batangas in the “snap” elections of 1986, and Marcos of Ilocos chose Tolentino of Manila in defending his kingdom, the North-South political equation was dashed. In 1992, FVR chose Lito Osmena of Cebu as his “vice” both as a return to the Luzon-Visayas balance and the fact that the latter was himself considered a “presidentiable”. Earlier, he had tried to get Chief Justice Marcelo B. Fernan, but the Cebuano jurist-politician decided to partner with Monching Mitra. Fernan was certain of winning the vice-presidency, with 53% of the voters expressing preference for him over the feuding Osmena brothers (Lito for FVR and John as Danding’s running-mate). But as fate would have it, Erap Estrada who was gunning for the presidency decided mid-way to slide down to becoming ECJ’s “vice”. The result? FVR won, ECJ lost. But Erap won. Thus we had a president from Pangasinan and a “vice” from San Juan in Metro-Manila, both from Luzon once more.

In 1998, the main protagonists were Speaker Joe de V of Pangasinan and VP Erap of Metro Manila. Joe de V eventually partnered with Gloria Macapagal Arroyo of Pampanga and Pangasinan. Not only were they from Luzon, they were from the same central plains. And Erap took Ed Angara of Baler as his “vice”.

In 2004, Gloria, the incumbent after she kicked Erap out of Malacanang in 2001, hand-picked Noli de Castro of Pola in Mindoro Oriental, a well-known broadcaster who won as senator barely three years before, as her “vice”. That was an astute move, as we have seen for the past five years. And FPJ was partnered by his handlers with Loren Legarda, herself a well-known broadcast journalist who topped the senatorial elections in 1998.

Worth noting is that although De Castro ran as an “independent” candidate for senator in 2001, he was adopted by Erap’s opposition Pwersa ng Masa as its candidate. Right after he topped that contest, he enlisted himself as part of the administration bloc and joined Manny Villar’s pro-regime Wednesday dinner club. And Loren won in 1998 as a Lakas poster girl. In the impeachment trial of 2001, she voted to open the “second envelope”, as against Erap’s eleven loyalists, and was seen on TV crying when the trial was aborted by a walk-out of the prosecution. That event triggered Edsa Dos, and Loren was clearly classified as an administration senator for the last three years of her first term. Yet, when FPJ ran, she was partnered with the legendary king of Philippine movies. Erap had forgiven her, and forgot.

In 2007, Loren decided to run once more for the Senate, thus rendering moot her protest with the Supreme Court over Noli’s election. She swore in as a member of the Nationalist People’s Coalition, and ran as part of the “Genuine Opposition” with whom she came out on top. Noli, although supportive and submissive throughout, has refused to join Lakas or Kampi, neither the newly married PaLaKa, which gave its benediction to Gilbert Teodoro as Gloria’s standard-bearer and chief apologist.

In the run-up to 2010, both Loren and Noli had been early favourites in the looming presidential derby, but as fate and fickle public opinion would have it, they are now relegated to “vice” material. Loren’s misfortune probably lies in her being a woman, not exactly a market-perfect product after 9 unbearably long years of a “hated” woman president. Noli’s lack of conviction and drive doomed his presidential prospects.

Oddly, the last man into the fray, Noynoy Aquino, whose presidential quest was serendipitously pushed by the death of his mother, President Cory after a year-long bout with cancer was the first to bag a “vice”. And so the LP, nervous because their champion, Mar Roxas had tortuously been unable to get enough voter preference in the surveys, now have a champion, and an early match-up of Noynoy and Mar. The early surveys indicate that they are the team to beat.

Erap has declared he is running, constitutional questions notwithstanding. And he has chosen his vice-president, Jojo Binay, who also happens to be the president of the UNO Coalition that was used in the 2007 elections. Earlier, he offered Binay’s slot to Chiz Escudero and Loren Legarda, and apparently both did not bite. Escudero will declare his delayed intent to gun for the top slot next week, while Loren is supposed to make an announcement on her plans today or tomorrow.

Over the past weeks though, speculation was rife that Legarda may after all not run with Escudero, and she openly admitted that she was being wooed, by several presidential candidates. She mentioned Chiz, Villar, Gibo, Erap and even Dick Gordon; later she trimmed the list to just Chiz, Villar and Gibo. Clearly she refused Gordon if the newspaper reports are accurate.

Meanwhile, Noli de Castro, after his talks with Villar which we wrote about some two weeks ago, is still waiting for whatever from Manny. Is it a go or no go? And if it’s a go, well, where’s the private show of goodwill? That somebody is allegedly brokering Loren with Manny of the most money has been grist of the rumour and text mill of late.

Now let me tell you a story: In late 1997, the extremely popular VP Erap had a problem. Elections in May 2008 was just several months away, and yet he had no “vice”. Ed Angara was available, if his LDP would coalesce with Erap’s PMP. LDP had an ample enough political infrastructure, while PMP had little. But the surveys indicated that the little lady called Gloria was making inroads, and eating into Erap’s commanding lead in the surveys. Backroom negotiators started working for both Gloria and Erap for a possible match-up. The deal being brokered was for Gloria to run as “vice” to Erap instead, and be assured of the presidential plum come 2004.

But then a fly in the ointment also appeared from out of the blue. Fred Lim captured the moribund LP, got Pres. Cory and even Cardinal Sin to anoint him. And Tita Cory persuaded Sen. Serge Osmena to partner with Lim. As I was working with Erap at the time, we got worried, not because Lim was a formidable opponent, but the possibility of him eating away from our Erap’s huge Chinoy following. An Erap-GMA tandem was a convenient marriage of two extremely popular figures, but an Erap-Edong tandem was a balanced ticket of popularity plus the LDP machinery.

When news about Edong negotiating with Fred was confirmed by LDP insiders who had by then become closet Erap supporters, we decided to stop the talks with a rather “difficult” Gloria, and went with Angara instead. In less than a week, the negotiations had been completed, and it became an Erap-Edong tandem, launched with the usual cinematic hoopla at the Folk Arts Theater. Gloria, whose campaign chest would not fill up, was left with no other option than to go for Joe de V. She won handily, but she could not help make Joe win. Two years and a few months later, she resigned as DSWD secretary, a post the victorious Erap graciously gave her. Three months after resignation, she was sworn in as “acting” president by a Supreme Court that gave legal imprimatur to a de facto coup.

What are the case lessons gleaned from these “vice” transactions? One is timing. The potential “vice” must come in at the right time, when a presidentiable is desperately looking for a partner. The price is best when the timing is right. Juxtapose this lesson of the right timing with what has happened to current Vice Noli. When his numbers were high, he did not bite. When his numbers went down, his price went down. But because someone is desperately looking (actually two), he may negotiate for higher. Parang “stock market”, or the price of real estate in Marikina.

Only in this country is the vice-president treated like “precious” commodity. Precious enough to have a “price”. Precious enough to be offered transactional bargains such as “goodwill”, or future positions for him and his assigns. Of course, the downside lies in the ability to win as a team. If the “vice” wins but is unable to win with his “president”, then obviously the post-facto arrangements will not matter. Which is why these days, the wise “vice”, if rumours are to be given credence, prefers an ample “goodwill” as against promises of “shared” glory.. Or, as in the Doy Laurel experience, even promises are not honoured. The mutiny at Edsa, it would seem, was reason enough to breach word given.

Yet in reality, while a vice-presidential candidate’s voter appeal does not necessarily transfer to his presidential team-mate, as proven in several previous elections, a presidential run is not taken seriously unless there is a “vice”. And if the “vice”, for whatever reason, logical or emotional, happens to be a “presidentiable” as well, then the cachet ups his ante. Which explains why most everyone starts a vice-presidential quest by declaring first for the presidency. The exception in the present run-up to 2010 is Ronnie Puno, who declared for the vice-presidency even before his party chose a presidential candidate.

Long lost too is the geographical equation in choosing one’s “vice”. The geographical and ethno-linguistic divide has been blurred by the pervasive dominance of media, particularly broadcast, in people’s consciousness. Add to that the growing use of special media – the internet and its myriad permutations, which brings news, even rumours, in real time. Long lost too is the principle of party loyalty. Parties in this day and age, as this space keeps repeating, have become mere flags of convenience.

So, in the next five weeks before the Comelec deadline for filing candidacies comes, expect more quick-draw and quick-buck political somersaults and many a “surprise”.

* * *

And speaking of Ronnie the Tree, how true is it that he has been chastened by the survey numbers, and now refuses to throw more money after wasting quite a pile on his vice-presidential quest? If so, who will escort Gibo in 2010 --- Ebdane? Or an import? Will wonders never cease!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The “Vice”

There is a metaphor used in the US of A to describe the office of Vice-President as “worth a pitcher of warm spit”. The uselessness of the office was ascribed to it’s being just a “waiting room” for death watch that may or may not occur. Taking off from the American presidential system, the Philippine Commonwealth had a president, Manuel Luis Quezon, and a Vice-President, Sergio Osmena Sr. The Commonwealth leadership went into exile in the United States after Japan invaded Manila, and the Japanese inaugurated a Second Philippine Republic (the First was led by Aguinaldo’s short-lived presidency). The president proclaimed by the Japanese was Jose P. Laurel of Batangas. His first vice-president was Don Benigno Aquino Sr., father of Ninoy.

By the time MacArthur “liberated” the Philippines, President Quezon had already died of complications owing to tuberculosis in Saranac Lake, New York. Sergio Osmena of Cebu was thus installed the second president of the Commonwealth, the first Philippine vice-president to succeed the presidency. But when elections were held for the presidency of the Third Republic, Manuel Roxas, the fiery orator from Capiz, defeated the self-effacing gentleman from Cebu. Roxas and his newly-formed Liberal Party chose Elpidio Quirino of Ilocos Sur, a three-term senator closely associated with Manuel Quezon. He chose Quirino over Quintin Paredes of Abra and Claro Mayo Recto of Batangas and Tayabas. Quirino became the second vice-president to succeed a president who died while yet in office.

The third “vice” to become president by succession was Carlos P. Garcia of Bohol, whom the enormously popular Ramon Magsaysay picked reluctantly as running-mate after the more well-known Arsenio H. Lacson, Mayor of Manila and native of Negros, declined his offer. A widely circulated story in political lore has the irreverent Arsenic telling off Monching Magsaysay, saying, “Malakas ka pa sa kalabaw, baka mauna pa akong mamatay sa iyo. Dito na lang ako sa Manila”. Monching died in a plane crash three years into his term, in Mt. Manunggal in Cebu. Thus did the low-key, often snubbed Garcia, the first truly dark-complexioned vice-president of the land, ascend the presidency. 1957 was an election year, and Garcia had to immediately launch his campaign for the presidency. He defeated the Liberals’ Jose Yulo of Negros, but his vice-presidential candidate, Jose B. Laurel Jr. of Batangas, son of the wartime president, was defeated by Diosdado Macapagal of Pampanga. This is where the concept of “uselessness” of the vice-president’s position came in.

Previous vice-presidents were named to the cabinet by a grateful president. In the United States, the role of presiding officer of the US Senate was automatically assigned to the elected Vice-President. It is still largely ceremonial, because real power in the US Senate lies in the hands of the Majority Floor Leader. But in the Philippine setting, the “vice” was mere person-in-waiting unless the president gave him a cabinet position. So, Quirino was Roxas’ Secretary of Foreign Affairs, and so was Garcia under Magsaysay. But Macapagal was denied any cabinet position, and used up his four years, from 1957 to 1961 going to every municipality in the country, campaigning for the presidency which he won over re-electionist Garcia. His partner was Emmanuel Pelaez of Misamis, the first vice-president from Mindanao. But Macapagal and Pelaez broke off politically after just a year because of the celebrated Harry Stonehill scandal, which tarred almost every politician in town.

Notice that almost always, the then two political parties demanded geographic balance in cobbling up a national ticket. If a presidential candidate came from Luzon, the vice-presidential candidate must come from the Visayas, or Mindanao. Even in choosing eight senatorial candidates, regional or ethnic representation was ideally pursued. In the 1965 Nacionalista Party convention, Senate President Ferdinand Marcos, earlier turning coat from the Liberal Party to challenge Macapagal, chose Fernando Lopez of Iloilo, a former vice-president under Elpidio Quirino, over Maning Pelaez. All three were candidates for presidential standard-bearer, along with Gil Puyat of Pampanga and Dominador Aytona of Bicol. The convention was a tight contest, and only in the second ballot did Marcos win, over Pelaez, and third-placer Lopez. Puyat and Aytona had withdrawn after the first ballot, and swung their support to the scion of Ilocandia. Why did Marcos choose Lopez and not Pelaez, already the incumbent vice-president?

Lopez belonged to the influential clan that owned the country’s second largest newspaper, the Manila Chronicle , and a yet new broadcasting station that was to later metamorphose into giant ABS-CBN. The younger brother of Don Fernando also controlled Meralco, which was the power-provider for Manila and its suburbs. And the family exercised great sway over the so-called “sugar bloc”, landlords who were also governors and legislators for Negros and Iloilo. Interestingly, the re-electionist Macapagal and his LP chose a young congressman, like his father a brilliant orator, Gerardo Roxas of Capiz, as running-mate. The Marcos-Lopez tandem beat Macapagal-Roxas in 1965, though Roxas felt he was cheated. He ran for senator two years after, and topped. But then, seven years later, Marcos declared martial law. The Third Republic was dead.

Caving in to pressures from the American government, Marcos called for “snap” elections. What is germane to this article is how the administration chose its “vice”, and how Cory Aquino got her running-mate. In the ranks of the KBL, speculation was rife that no less than the strongman’s wife, the powerful Imelda Romualdez-Marcos, would be pushed into running for vice-president. Marcos was sick at the time with what was then whispered to be lupus that had metastasized into kidney failure. But Marcos decided on Arturo Tolentino, the respected parliamentarian from Manila, defiant of the tradition and practice of a North-South geopolitical balance. Imelda, the political scuttlebutt then averred, “chose” Tolentino because he had little political strength to pose as challenge to her own widely-perceived ambitions of succeeding Marcos.

In the opposition camp, the choice had more drama. Salvador H. Laurel, son of the president of the Second Republic, had initiated the formation of a broad coalition of anti-Marcos elements, the United Nationalist Democratic Organization (UNIDO), in which this writer was backroom worker and deputy secretary-general. He had been proclaimed in June of 1985 as the presidential standard-bearer, should widely-anticipated “snap” elections occur. But the parliament of the streets, predecessor to what is now called “civil society”, ganged up against Doy and goaded Cory Aquino, the martyr’s widow, to run. It became increasingly clear to us who ran Doy’s backroom that Cory would run, but Doy and his traditional political advisers were in state of denial.

There is a bit of déjà vu on how Doy was deserted by his UNIDO stalwarts, the men and women who just a year and a half ago Laurel proclaimed as the “magnificent 58”, (after winning a third of the Batasang Pambansa in the 1984 elections), and how Mar Roxas looked behind and saw so few, when Noynoy Aquino decided to be the Liberal Party candidate for 2010.

Doy’s UNIDO was larger then than today’s LP. He had painstakingly put together an alliance of former Nacionalistas, Liberals, and regional parties, and the opposition then controlled a third of the Batasan. The Liberal Party today has at best a dozen congressmen in a 236-member legislature, although it has a sixth of the 23-man Senate.

But apart from being a chronicler of presidents and vice-presidents, this two-part article wants to give an inside view on how the “vice” is chosen, from the death throes of authoritarian rule to the birth of the Fifth Republic. (What is considered the Fourth Republic is actually a brief interlude between February 25, 1986 when Cory took over and the promulgation of the new Constitution in 1987, when a legal dictatorship existed, albeit with liberal and democratic practices).

Cory asked Doy to forsake his presidential quest and run instead as her vice-president. Even getting Cory to offer the vice-presidency to Doy was not easy. There was a certain personal distance between Ninoy’s widow and Ninoy’s buddies. Ninoy described Doy to me in Boston as his close confidante. They both suffered the post-war stigma of being “children of collaborators” at a time when being pro-American was a badge of honour. Both young men in the late 40’s, they suffered at being treated almost like pariah by peers and social equals, but that goaded both to redeem the tarnish to their name.

I gleaned some coldness in Cory’s face when Doy’s name was mentioned in private. It was, I am told, the same lack of warmth for Teng Puyat and Monching Mitra, Ninoy’s other buddies. All have gone into the great beyond, the last being Cory herself, in whose legacy Noynoy and the Liberals now stake their standards.

Be that as it may, my first recollection of a proposal to get Doy to be numero dos was in Tokyo, mid-November of 1985. Marcos had just declared his agreement to a “snap” contest over ABC’s Ted Koppel. Doy called me from the United States where he had been on a speaking tour, and asked me to rendezvous with him in Japan. Late that night, after dinner at Restaurant Hama in Roppongi, I got a call at my Imperial Hotel room from Lupita Aquino Kashiwahara, who was xtaying in the Akasaka district. For almost two hours, she and I debated what she proposed to be a “parallel presidency” where Doy would have great powers, as vice-president and prime minister (the 1972 Constitution promulgated under authoritarian auspices prescribed a presidentially powerful parliamentary system almost akin to the French model). I would have none of it, insisting on Doy’s experience and qualifications over Cory’s popularity.

Back in Manila, several meetings were held, day-in and day-out. A National Unification Council was formed, with then MP Cecilia Munoz Palma and former senator Soc Rodrigo as primary convenors. That led into more acrimony rather than unification. Cory had already primed Nene Pimentel of Cagayan de Oro, in case Doy would remain recalcitrant. Doy, on the other hand, had initially thought of Judy Araneta-Roxas as his vice-president, but then again, Judy had already joined Cory. Doy then primed Eva Estrada-Kalaw, Ninoy’s second cousin, as his possible “vice”.

This was when a frenzy of backroom negotiations took over the failed public unification conferences. It became family-to-family. Peping Cojuangco, Cory’s younger brother, started the talks with Doy and his older brother, Speaker Pepito. By then too, defections from Doy’s camp to Cory were made public. Parliamentarians who had won seats in the Batasan under Doy’s leadership started declaring support for Cory. Laurel saw the ground from under his feet turn loose.

After one such meeting held at the Lee Street townhouse occupied by Doy’s daughter Suzie Delgado, which was at the eastern side of the large Laurel compound along Shaw Boulevard, part of which is now owned by Manuel Villar and his wife Cynthia (the ancestral house bequeathed by President Laurel to his namesake the Speaker, once a defeated vice-presidential candidate), Doy conferred with me in his private study. “Cory and Peping are proposing a parallel presidency, similar to what Lupita told you in Tokyo”, he began. “Committed na daw ‘yung mga economic ministries --- Finance, Central Bank, etc., kay Jimmy Ongpin and his group”, he continued, and then asked me to submit that same day a list of parallel cabinet positions.

With the help of another UNIDO deputy, Ric Golpeo, I made a matrix of cabinet positions. “If they want Education, we should get Health; if they have Defense, we should have Justice or Local Governments. Since they will have Trade (as part of “economic” portfolios), then let us have Tourism; Agriculture vis-à-vis Natural Resources; Public Works vis-à-vis Transport and Communications, and so on and so forth. We left if to Doy to fill in the names, when they became victorious.

But the snag in the talks came when the matter of UNIDO as party vehicle came, not in the “particion de bienes”. Cory wanted to run as Laban; Doy insisted it had to be UNIDO, which he argued was the party under which the re-energized opposition had won in the 1984 Batasan elections and which had accredited minority party status with the Comelec. A day before the deadline for filing their certificates of candidacy, Cory and Doy agreed to run under the UNIDO. The rest is history.

But what happened to the agreement on power-sharing after Edsa Uno is altogether another issue.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Not the usual problem approaches

It’s quite refreshing to listen to young leaders posit their views on national problems. In the Synergeia Foundation-sponsored “Face to Face” encounter between the presidentiables and 100 local government leaders, which was televised live over ANC, we saw how clearly out-classed the older traditional politician, Manuel B. Villar was, by the younger crop of rising political stars --- 49-year old Noynoy Aquino, 44-year old Gilbert Teodoro, and 40-year old Chiz Escudero.

It is good that 72-year old Joseph Estrada did not appear. The contrasts would have been awful, between the young and the aging. Villar, who at 60 is not quite old, distinctly looked and sounded old in the competition. There were no bold statements, only lame pronouncements. There were no new ideas, only neither-here-nor-there platitudes from the mind and mouth of Villar.

Gibo sounded firm and resolute, if at times betraying an autocratic mindset, a macro approach that did not sound quite right to the LGU officials assembled at the AIM. Noynoy showed humility, a willingness to learn and to consult, but was rather tentative, confined to generalized statements. Chiz was refreshingly well-prepared, his knowledge of details quite amazing, his bias towards decentralizing power and resources of the national government very convincing.

What the forum underlined was the need for more such “encounters” with those who would be our next president. In their statements, the voter can glean who has enough competence and who has little. In their response and approach to problem-solving, one could discern the inner character behind the glitz of contrived propaganda. Of course the trapos would say only the ABC income levels bother about forums and debates, and the “masa” are beguiled oh so easily by paid crap masquerading as information. They underestimate the Filipino. With misery and bad governance being served to us in massive doses these days, I believe that even the lowest-educated will think and discern. Let us not insult the “masa” voter’s ability to distinguish lies from facts.

Having said that, one finds young Escudero’s approach to the recent calamities quite out-of-the-box but very sensible. Deeming it inappropriate to make a much-awaited declaration of presidential intent upon reaching his 40th birthday last Monday, the stalwart of the Nationalist People’s Coalition instead visited several towns of inundated Pangasinan last Sunday, and saw for himself the wide swath of destruction Pepeng and the Napocor-San Roque Dam wrought.

The day after his visit to the flood-devastated areas, he quickly calculated the tons of water, several billions of liters, that San Roque Dam officials released in one massive sweep in the dead of Thursday night. And I thought lawyers like Escudero are poor with numbers. But beyond measuring the liters of unwanted water, the youngest presidential candidate posited what his own party-mate, DECS Secretary Jesli Lapus, failed to see. Escudero asked government to declare a virtual “calamity pass” to all students in the flood and typhoon-devastated areas. There are but a few weeks left in the semester, he reasoned, and many of the classrooms were still in helpless disrepair. Under such physical conditions, learning is impaired. Even teachers were flood-victims too, and under such state of stress, they are not likely to teach properly. Parents need help, to clean and repair homes, or whatever is left of these. Those whose farms were devastated in the central plains of Luzon had lost their livelihood, and re-planting will be quite expensive. Young arms and energy of students would do well to help.

But Lapus twitted Escudero’s suggestion as akin to giving the youth “calamity diplomas”, insisting that learning in classrooms was paramount. Escudero earlier stated that the students had learned in two weeks of disaster more lessons in life than an entire semester of classroom work could have given them.

The young senator had more. He proposed a one-stop processing center to be immediately set up by government in the regional centers of the flood-devastated areas. For indeed, the disaster also rendered important documents lost or watered-down beyond recognition. There is little we could do to restore photographs and diplomas, or other such precious mementoes of a lifetime. But what about passports, licenses, birth and marriage certificates, land titles, tax declarations and tax receipts, the loss of which would impact on the normalcy of lives post-calamity? So Escudero proposes that DFA, NSO, LTO, LRA, and the local documenting officials make the process of reconstruction easy and facilitated. How come nobody in the executive thought of this?

There were other solutions that the senator proposed, such as condonation of real property tax debt for the certifiable victims whose properties have been destroyed, surely the least government could do to ease the pain. And as a medium-term solution, designing and building permanent evacuation sites with enough equipment and provisions for the next year, instead of perennially using classrooms as temporary shelter.

Again on the medium term, he asks that a national land use policy ought to be promulgated, with emphasis on recognizing the inevitable effects on our residential and commercial zones of climate change. His fellow NPC stalwart, Senadora Loren Legarda, has been espousing the environmental cause with a passion for years on end, but government, local as well as national, paid little heed. I remember that Orly Mercado, who was Loren’s professor in mass communications at the state university, authored legislation intended to create a national land use policy as early as the Cory Aquino days when he was a first-term senator. Nothing came out of it, because land-owners in Congress have been sitting on it for the past several congresses. I should know. I helped Sen. Orly in those days as a consultant in his legislative staff.

But Escudero goes beyond realization of the imperative of a national land use policy that would frame local zoning within proper environmental safeguards and disaster-preparedness plans. In the short-term, he is appealing to big land-owners to share some of their land, for use as permanent relocation sites for those who must now be evicted from habitat which encroach upon waterways and lakes, and whose lives will always be at peril with every typhoon or flood.

There are at least half a million families whose shanties and lean-to’s are at constant peril, along Laguna de Bay’s coastline, or Metro-Manila’s creeks and esteros. Where in God’s hands would we entrust their immediate habitat?

There are thousands of hectares around Metro Manila in nearby provinces that are either public land or private property. Indeed we should initiate the building of new townships, and the first settlers therein should be those whose lives are at constant peril. But where do we get enough land? Informal settlers can do with 50 square meters each, even less. On simple arithmetic, without considering thoroughfares and public space, only 200 families will fit in a hectare of land, assuming single-storey dwellings, more if we can build low-rise housing. And yet again, where do we get the land?

There are landowners, family or corporate, who own thousands of hectares of land, in Pampanga, Tarlac, Bulacan, Laguna, or hundreds of hectares in Rizal and Cavite. Will they share?

That Escudero’s rivals for the presidency are prominent and wealthy landowners is beyond question. Does this make his challenge laced with politics? Perhaps. Perhaps not. That Escudero owns no property other than his Quezon City digs probably makes it easier for him to appeal for the rich to share.

But surely, the suggestion is innovative and creative, and if all in this country would only imbue themselves with the Bibical precept that property and wealth is stewardship of God’s gifts, and share these with the many who have no land and little other property, then perhaps even Mother Nature would smile.

Monday, October 12, 2009

What is happening to our country?

Is the good Lord sending us a message? Two Saturdays ago, torrents of water fell from the heavens, right smack into the metropolis, and in six hours of blinding rain, thousands of homes were flooded, most beyond repair or rehabilitation. For two days, the national capital region and nearby provinces were virtually no man’s land. Rooftops looked like thousands of islets where families were marooned, waiting for succour, hungry and abandoned. As the days passed, we counted some 250 deaths. The number of those whose hopes have been slain, now looking liked dazed zombies unable to fathom what happened to their lives and unable to ponder over a future saddled with debt and uncertainty, keep growing as floodwaters have not receded in many areas. Laguna de Bay seems to have gone into reverse reclamation, with nature reclaiming the area which man had encroached upon. In the process, half a million people will soon be without habitat.

With the nation still in shock, another typhoon kept everybody in perilous death watch even as relief work was being organized. After Ondoy’s devastation, Pepeng, with center winds of almost 200 kilometers per hour, with gustiness beyond the same, threatened several parts of Luzon. Everybody heaved a sigh of relief when it’s howling winds spared Bicol, Quezon, thence Aurora and even the northernmost parts of the country. But the typhoon was not finished with the benighted land. Its winds may not have done as much, but for an entire week, it stayed within the country’s environmental theatre. And it poured far more rain in far greater areas --- all of Region 2, all of Region 1, and the Montanosa in-between. It filled our dams --- Ambuklao built by Quirino, Magat and Pantabangan built by Marcos, San Roque built by Ramos. Meter after meter of water had to be finally released else greater tragedy of unlimited tons of water destroy everything in its path. This happened Thursday night, and residents of Pangasinan, Isabela, and Nueva Ecija hardly slept as the water level kept rising, destroying their appliances and furniture, later threatening to destroy everything they had saved all their lives. One wonders why the dam management did not release the water little by little as early as two days before, and whether there was any coordination between them and Pagasa, the weather bureau. And why they had to release the water in the dead of night, when people were asleep. Meantime, in the highlands, continuous rain loosened the soil, and massive landslides snuffed out entire families in the dead of night. Another couple of hundred Filipinos died, perhaps more when the reports from other parts come in.

Meanwhile too, vegetables in the highlands meant for the tables of the lowlands are rotting, as Benguet and Aritao are marooned. Bangus in Dagupan squirmed out of their pens and washed out all human income expected from them. “Buntis na palay”, stalks heavy with soon-to-be-harvested grain, were bent, then drowned by rampaging floodwaters. An entire season of work and capital was destroyed, in what is the nation’s rice granary --- the central and northern plains of Luzon. Beyond, in the irrigated lowlands of Laguna, the same fate was repeated.

People will have to pick up the shattered pieces of washed-out lives. And they face the spectre of massive hunger and spiralling prices, going to Christmas and beyond, as the nation enters the orgy of political campaign to choose their next likely-to-fail hope for redemption. While it is true that climate change has unleashed many aberrant behaviours in Mother Nature’s weather patterns, the reality of successive quirky disasters befalling a nation already benighted by social and economic inequity, boggles the mind and discombobulates public order.

The Holy Father in the Holy See received our latest ambassadress to his papal court meantime. She was the third within his still short papacy, and within that span of time, he had heard nothing but miserable news about the only Catholic country in Asia, “only” until an equally impoverished Timor l’Este was snuggled out of the corpus of the world’s largest Islamic country.

Even the Pope could not contain his puzzlement at the stream of bad tidings that kept engulfing this country jewel of his tiara. He watched the endless diaspora of his faithful into almost all parts of the world, suffering ill effects upon families and social contracts, and even disruption of their accustomed religiosity. He heard news about unmitigated greed elevating official corruption to the level of evil science. And now he weeps at the unmitigated disasters that keep befalling his Catholic outpost in the Far East.

Through the new envoy before him, he wondered aloud why we cannot seem to be properly led by honest and morally upright leaders, as if in puzzlement as to how a nation consecrated to the Holy Mother and the Infant Jesus could be so cursed by low life masquerading as public officials. “The struggle against poverty in the Philippines calls for honesty, integrity and an unwavering fidelity to the principles of justice, especially on the part of those entrusted with positions of governance and public administration”, he lectured from his dais the veiled lady dispatched before him by the woman who once pompously said that “the Lord put me here”. Vatican officials should probably research at the origins of the wealth of the envoys the little lady has sent to them. Oh yes, they are always ladies of great wealth, but scratch a little deeper into the provenance of their possessions. Were they the result of graft-ridden commissions once purloined in a mahjong table through proximity to power? Or other unseemly sources of great wealth? Yet now, as if to redeem such inglorious and suspicious provenance, they face the holy of holies, in spiritual pretense and holy pose. It is as if Vatican II had failed to cleanse our faith of the filth of the Borgias and other medievalists who once lorded it over the Holy Church.

What is happening to the country? And for a country that year-in and year-out is visited by twenty typhoons each year, why couldn’t government have been more prepared, and its actions coordinated? Why are there no zoning plans for local government officials to religiously comply with? Why hasn’t Congress passed a national land use policy for the longest time? (I remember that a bill was presented as early as the Cory days to promulgate a national land use policy, but every vested interest in Congress slept on it). So many questions and so few answers from a government caught clueless and helpless.

Meantime the misery of victims multiply. What the mind finds immeasurable is the greater problem of repairing and rehabilitation, replanting fields destroyed, financing the reconstruction, even retrieving important documents lost to hundreds of thousands. If we as a people had been of lesser faith, our spirit and morale would be utterly broken.

Who among the presidential contenders can posit both immediate plans and long-term solutions, other than distributing relief goods wrapped in their signature colours? Is there anyone in government who can act, beyond the endless meetings, the repetitive command conferences? Why are we ever so cursed?

Tuloy na si Chiz

Nangako si Chiz Escudero nang makailang beses na hindi siya magdi-deklara para sa panguluhan hanggang hindi niya inaabot ang kanyang ika-apatnapung kaarawan. Ayon kasi sa Saligang Batas, maari lamang tumakbo ang isang Pilipino sa pagka-pangulo o bise kapag inabot na niya ang edad ng 40. At si Chiz, na ipinanganak noong Oktubre 10, 1969, ay naging 40 anyos noong Sabadong nagdaan.

Kinansela ang isang dapat sana’y pormal na deklarasyon sa Club Filipino kahapon ng gabi, dahil sa tila hindi nababagay sa panahon. Lubha ang pagkaka-salanta ng Northern at Central Luzon dala ng Bagyong Pepeng, at nangyari ito samantalang hilahod pa sa hirap ang mga biktima naman ng Bagyong Ondoy dalawang linggo pa lang ang nakakaraan. Kaya’t minabuting kanselahin ang pormal na pasinaya, at kahapon, ayon sa balita, ay nagtungo si Escudero sa Tarlac at Pangasinan upang mamigay ng mga relief goods at pagkain sa mga biktima ni Pepeng.

Subali’t wala mang pormal na deklarasyon, malinaw sa mga binitiwang interbyu kahapon na tuloy na si Chiz sa pagtakbo bilang isa sa mga kandidato ng oposisyon sa panguluhan ng bansa pitong buwan mula ngayon. At ipinakita naman niya ang kanyang kakayahang mag-isip nang mga angkop na solusyon sa mga suliranin ng bansa at hirap ng bayan. ‘Di tulad ng iba na nagkaroon nang magarang seremonya na wala namang platapormang binitiwan liban sa pangako ng maayos at malinis na pamamahala, si Chiz ay naglibot na lamang sa ilang mga istasyon ng radyo upang ilahad ang kanyang mga sadyang naiibang mga panukala ukol sa krisis ng sunud-sunod na kalamidad na dumating sa atin.

At tulad ng kadadaan lang na Synergeia forum sa AIM na televised live ng ANC, napansin ng marami na nagingibabaw ang batang Escudero sa kaalaman kontra sa kanyang mga katunggali na sina Manny Villar ng Nasyonalista at magpinsan-buong sina Noynoy Aquino ng Liberal at Gilbert Teodoro ng pangkat-GMA. Humarap sila sa isandaang mga lider ng mga local na pamahalaan, tulad nina Gobernador Jon-jon Mendoza at Loreto Ocampo ng Misamis Occidental, sina Mayor Ed Hagedorn ng Puerto Princesa, na nagnais matimbang ang tugon ng apat sa mga suliranin ng bansa. Malinaw sa sinumang nanood, anuman ang kinikilingan, na mas handa at mas nag-aaral ang batang Escudero. Umangat ang kanyang mga kategorikal at walang pasubaling mga deklarasyon, at hindi tulad ng iba na paliku-liko ang mga pinagsasabi. Medyo pumangalawa si Gilbert Teodoro, na marami ding kategorikal na pananalita, dangan nga lamang at sadyang hirap siya dahil pasan sa balikat ang bigat ng mga kapalpakan ng rehimeng Arroyo na kailangan niyang depensahan.

Mariing dineklara ni Escudero na tigilan na ang pork barrel, at imbes ay gawing line-item budgeting ang ating gastusin, para maging tunay na transparent ang mga proyektong paglalaanan ng salapi ng bayan. Mula 2005 nang pinangunahan niya ang impeachment kay GMA lalan ng iskandalong Garci, wala na siyang natanggap na pork barrel, nguni’t tumagal naman daw siya bilang congressman at senador. Si Ping Lacson nga, hindi tumatanggap ng pork barrel, nguni’t nakapagsisilbi rin sa bayan.

Sinabi niyang dapat dagdagan ang IRA para sa mga lokal na pamahalaan, na kinontra ng mga katunggali. Ang iba ay nais na lalong gawing makapangyarihan ang tanggapan ng pangulo, samantalang si Escudero ay nanindigang dapat ang palakasin ay mga lokal na namamahala, dahil sila mismo ang kaharap ng mamamayan at nakakaalam ng mga suliranin nila.

Malinaw at makabago rin ang kanyang approach sa problema ng kapayapaan sa Mindanao. Tigilan ang solo-solong pakikipag-negosyasyon, na may kaakibat pang mga dayuhang bansa. Mas dapat daw ay makipag-usap ng sinsero sa iba’t ibang tribu ng mga kapatid nating Muslim, dahil maari nga namang iba-iba ang kanilang hinaing. Hindi iisang Bangsa Moro, kundi pakikipag-negosyasyon sa mga Maguindanaw, Tausug, Maranaw, atbp.

Nguni’t lalong makikita ang kakaibang mga solusyon na isiniwalat ng batang Escudero sa mga interbyu niya kahapon patungkol sa kalamidad na dala ni Ondoy at Pepang. Malinaw sa kanyang mga solusyon na inilatag, na may “out-of-the-box” approaches si Chiz sa kanyang mga pananaw. Hindi lumang pulitika at hindi datihang mga solusyon. Dahil lubhang humaba tayo sa pitak na ito, itutuloy natin bukas ang mga kakaiba nguni’t kahanga-hangang mga pananaw ni Escudero patungkol sa pagkaka-salanta na ating dinaranas at taun-taong hinaharap.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Selling the jewels

The business section of many newspapers bannered the story recently that the Food Terminal property in Taguig City will be up for sale. One hundred twenty hectares in all, the property, minus some 17 hectares which is being used by the National Food Authority, is expected to fetch a minimum of 13 billion pesos for the Philippine government.

The usual reason given for selling off crown jewels is privatization, which as policy recognizes that the private sector is better at business than government can be. In the past, government itself pioneered in business investments, blazing trails in strategic industries where the private sector was either too timid to risk its money, or had been unable to raise the huge capital requirements thereof. But there has been a paradigm shift since the post-war policy of protectionism, and then again, after martial law, when a lot of government corporations went in the red, drawing more and more public money subsidy in order to stay afloat.

The Cory Aquino and Ramos administrations sold a lot of government-owned assets, from the Manila Hotel to Philippine National Bank, to Petron (which Marcos bought from Exxon, an American corporation), Nawasa, and many more. Of late, the Macapagal-Arroyo regime has been on a selling binge --- the transmission grid which used to be owned by Transco, which in Marcos’ time was centrally-owned and operated by Napocor, among others. The latter is also privatizing its generating plants. The policy is to privatize the entire energy assets of government, from power generation to transmission, to distribution. Meralco is the latest such sale of government holdings in power distribution. But while indeed government has been a failure in running business, principally because unfit political appointees with little vision and plenty of greed have been given charge of such lucrative GOCC’s, the question of selling real estate is something else.

The Ramos government sold one of the best located pieces of real estate in the country --- Fort Bonifacio, which used to be Fort McKinley, headquarters of the Philippine Army and the Marines, and on which is located the Libingan ng mga Bayani. The property straddles the boundaries of Makati and Taguig, as prime as prime could be, because it is right beside Manila Golf Club, behind Forbes Park and Dasmarinas, and accessible to both South Superhigway, the circumferential road that leads to Pasig and Quezon City, and barely a kilometre away from EDSA. It was a much celebrated sale, the proceeds of which were supposed to be used for the modernization of our Armed Forces. Whatever happened to the money is still a puzzlement to this day. The Armed Forces has been planning and planning, talking and talking about modernization, yet, as of last count, our air assets were confined to two C-130’s (one mostly out-of-service) and a few hand-me-down helicopters from the US of A. Why, even Typhoon Ondoy found the NDCC headed by the Defense secretary scrambling around for rubber boats to effect rescue operations.

Now there’s another hundred hectares in Taguig, adjacent to what is now called the tony “Fort”, that private land developers, giants like the Gokongwei-owned Robinson flagship, or the Ayala Corporation, perhaps Henry Sy’s SM, or maybe even the newest kid on the block which has been gobbling up whatever real estate is up for sale, Alphaland, are salivating to acquire from the cash-strapped government --- Food Terminal, Inc.

The sprawling development was one of Ferdinand Marcos’ pioneering public investments. It was envisioned as a hub for the wholesale, processing, storage and myriad requirements of produce marketing and distribution. Ostensibly, the hub would help stabilize supply of fresh and frozen produce, and the pricing thereof. A set of cold storage facilities were put up, and for a while, even frozen and canned produce processors of tuna, crabmeat, and the like, used the FTI’s modern facilities. But that was more than three decades ago. The facilities have gone to pot since, with successive post-Marcos governments giving FTI not only less than optimal utilization, but utter neglect. It has become more a business carcass than anything else. But ah, the terra firma upon which its detritus stand, is now prime real estate. And a regime that has made fiscal deficits annual state-of-the-art reality is now selling it in a frenzy.

So it will become another residential-commercial complex for the rich and the near-rich. Beside it are tenement buildings put up by Dona Gloria’s father Disodado, as poor man’s housing. If only the daughter could eject the families there from, pack them into no man’s land somewhere in Calamba or Bulacan, cared of her HUDCC head, the vice-president, so they would not “lessen” the value of the FTI sprawl, she probably would. But then, the tenements are only four storeys tall, and the rich who would buy the condominiums put up by Ayala or Sy, Gokongwei or Alphaland (reputedly owned by the newest mestizo Castila “taipan” in town), need not see these monuments to decay from their penthouse aeries. The developers will put up swanky malls in a nation where shopping malls are mistaken for progress. And so on and so forth.

But wonder why the FTI complex could not be utilized instead for its original purpose, which is to be a distribution and processing hub for produce. Imagine if fruits and vegetables could be brought here from the North via NLEX and C-5, from the South via SLEX, stored in temperature-controlled multi-level warehouses, and sold to market whole-sellers. Instead of huge cargo trucks going all the way to Divisoria or Pasay or Nepa-Q, they would disgorge their produce into neatly-segregated sections of FTI, for smaller trucks of buyers to bring into the metropolis. Less traffic, more efficiency, and likely, better prices for the end-consumers.

And imagine also if all provincial passenger buses were to disgorge their human cargo into an inter-modal transportation hub at the FTI complex. Instead of these huge buses entering Pasay and Makati, QC and Manila, they would instead unload everybody at the hub, from where the MRT could be extended, and inter-metro buses and taxis could bring them to destinations outside the hub. This should quite decongest the metropolis of its traffic bane, and result in a more orderly, more organized intra-city transportation system. All these can certainly fit into the hundred and three hectares that government now intends to sell off the FTI complex. And government could ask the private sector to efficiently run these pro-consumer, anti-traffic operations, without ever losing title to the land.

On the contrary, where will the 13 or so billion pesos from the sale of the Taguig real estate go? To service an unsustainable deficit, brought about by low-efficiency tax collection, mis-prioritized government spending, and plenty of corruption. Talk of good governance.

Optimum benefit is not in the regime’s lexicon, despite an economist for a president. Myopia is. And add greed as motivation.

What a country!

Monday, October 5, 2009


We rushed our article last Friday the previous morning due to a series of early meetings. The night before, a friend e-mailed us this: “Several political personalities and controversial celebrities reportedly used Twitter to express their thoughts on this latest tragedy. Here are samples of unverified posted tweets.”

I saved the very wittily written “tweets”, and on Thursday morning, while I was on a rush for a scheduled meeting, I decided to use them for my Friday, October 2 column. Little did I realize at the time that the witticisms came from “the professional” I even added two or so lines to what my friend sent me.

Readers informed me about my non-attribution as early as Friday afternoon, but there was no way I could apologize in print until today. So very sorry, professional heckler, and to the blog’s many followers as well.

* * *

In the continuing probe by the Senate Committee of the Whole on Sen. Manuel Villar’s “unethical” C-5 power maneuvers, a scrutiny of the parcellary survey submitted by the DPWH yielded information that a non-existent lot was used to try to collect 78 million pesos for road right-of-way payments from government.

Lawyer Ernesto Francisco, counsel of Sen. Jamby Madrigal, noted in the last hearing that the duplicate copy presented by DPWH-NCR special investigator II, Carlos Bacolod Jr., had the inclusion of Golden Haven Memorial, Inc. property, when in the supposed original plan prepared in 2002, this was not included.

The geodetic engineer who conducted the parcellary survey, one Gil Sirjueco, was allegedly commissioned by the Villar companies, and is supposedly in possession of the copy of the missing original plan. Bacolod, it would seem, came up with a new survey that included the bottom portion of the original, which included a lot not included in the original plan. It was almost like an intercalation meant to increase the size of the property. Based however on the map prepared by NAMRIA, the official mapping agency of government, the so-called “lot” cannot be found in the alleged location.

An exasperated presiding officer, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile exclaimed, “So this is a ghost lot”.

Lawyer Ernesto Francisco, who ought to be congratulated for this sleuthing, wondered why Villar’s Golden Haven corporation is not claiming the P78 million, while it has claimed lesser amounts of 10 and 20 million, even as there is a big unpaid amount of 78 million pesos. Evidently, there must have been collusion between DPWH, BIR and the Villar corporation.
Worse, Bacolod and DPWH came up with a zonal valuation of 13,300 pesos per square meter for the Golden Haven property, which is several lots away from the C-5 road, yet a property owned by a certain Antonia Ramos right beside, was pegged at only 4,000 pesos per square meter. To try to extricate himself from the quicksand, Bacolod passed the buck to the BIR. Enrile expressed scepticism at Bacolod’s buck-passing, stating that when properties are bought by government, strict examination to ensure that public monies are not improperly paid out must be done.

“You are an agent of the government. You are a civil service employee. Your loyalty is to the Republic, so why would you allow government to pay more than double for a lot that is far from the road simply because other agencies say so? Why didn’t you ask?”, Enrile questioned the DPWH inspector.

It was also discovered during the hearing that Bacolod himself personally delivered the letter-offer to Masaito Development Corp. for a road R-O-W to its office in Makati City when the standard operating procedure is to have it delivered by mail. Masaito Properties had earlier engaged in property-swapping with Villar, at the latter’s instance, before the C-5 Road was built.
This “queer” behaviour and solicitude on the part of Bacolod should explain in future hearings why Villar and Masaito swapped properties, and what happened to the “excess” payments DPWH made.

Of course, Villar and his propagandists would say they did not press for payment on the “ghost” property. But what if he becomes president by the grace of voters duped by his slick advertising fuelled with lots and lots of money? Would the “ghost” resurrect and quietly get paid?
What other “ghosts” in other areas, such as Daang Hari, Daang Reyna, Norzagaray in Bulacan, San Pedro in Laguna, in Cavite, Cebu and Iloilo, might resurrect, and be shuffled over by DPWH, BIR, Bangko Sentral, and other agencies in an attempt to please the “bagong hari”?

* * *

In any case, the Senate is seriously considering a transfer of its session hall and offices to the nearby Manila Film Center, which was built by Imelda Romualdez Marcos for some international filmfest in the early 80’s. In the mad rush to complete the structure, a concrete floor caved in, killing scores of helpless workers.

Nonetheless, the film extravaganza went on, with actress Brooke Shields, if I remember right, gracing Imelda’s festival. Later, the centre played host to daring, not really so X-rated movies, which starred beautiful nymphets in naked glory. When Edsa One toppled the Marcoses, “ghosts” took over the abandoned building. Years after, some spirit questors communicated with “ghosts” who seemed to have inhabited the building after they were entombed by tons of concrete.

Now Senadora Miriam Defensor Santiago wants the Senate to buy the building from the Cultural Center, instead of interminably paying rent to Winston Garcia’s GSIS. The imposing structure, looking like some modern Parthenon, would be the new legislative playground, with ghosts thrown in to make their merriment more surreal.

Manny Villar, if he does not make it to the presidency come May 2010, should be at home with the “ghosts”, serving the last three years of his second term. Oh well.

* * *

So we do not end this “ghostly” piece in so ghastly enterprises, it is worth noting that the Canadian government has announced that it will fast-track the immigration processing of Philippine citizens “directly and significantly” affected by Typhoon Ketsana (Ondoy to us) who would seek to relocate in their sparsely-populated country.

Of course they must comply with requirements, and those who have kin already residing in Canada would be given top priority. Some 330,000 Canadians trace their roots to these benighted shores, and Filipinos represent the country’s third largest ethnic minority.

Indeed, rather than continue to live with the “ghosts” of Ondoy’s memory, many would do well to rebuild shattered lives elsewhere. Unfortunately, to these shores would go some of our best brains.